Inside the tunnel of death

Why did at least 33 people perish in the Mont Blanc tunnel? Sickened rescuers hint at negligence by officials responsible for safety
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The Independent Online
AMID THE mist and the prettily snow-laden trees, a faint stench of scorched bitumen and burnt rubber wafts from the mouth of the Mont Blanc tunnel. The awning above the entrance, a spread fist of concrete fingers, was once a celebrated symbol of French (or Franco-Italian) engineering skill; a proud symbol of the political, and physical, piercing of Europe's frontiers which marked the mid-1960s.

All is neat and orderly. The stench, and the silent groups of firefighters and gendarmes waiting their turn to enter, are the only sign of the unimaginable horrors four miles inside the mountain: a spectacle out of Dante, according to rescuers, of charred skeletons, melted trucks and disintegrated tunnel walls.

It is now known that at least 35 people - quite probably more - died inside Europe's highest mountain on Wednesday morning, the worst road tunnel accident in history. They were asphyxiated by carbon monoxide and then incinerated as their cars or trucks exploded like chestnuts in a stove.

The narrow bore - over seven miles long, little broader than a tube tunnel and swept by a powerful wind from the Italian end - turned into a furnace. Many of the vehicles were still too hot to approach yesterday, 72 hours after the catastrophe.

The dead are feared to in-clude a British truck driver, Martin Cairns, 23, originally from Newcastle, but based in Rotterdam. Others missing and feared dead include a French family of five and an Italian family of four. Mr Cairns's Dutch trucking company said they last heard of him at 11am on Wednesday, shortly before he entered the tunnel. His satellite tracking signal vanished soon afterwards.

The dead also include an Italian tunnel worker, Pierluccio Tinazzi, 33, who was overcome by fumes on his 11th trip into the inferno to bring back motorists on the pillion seat of his motorcycle. He had already saved 10 people. While trying to take yet another motorist to safety, he was forced to seek refuge in one of the sealed chambers excavated into the tunnel wall. The chambers were designed to provide shelter for two hours; the bodies of the two men were found 48 hours later.

The last year of the 20th century will go down as one in which the Chamonix valley, one of the most visited valleys in the Alps, suffered a medieval ordeal by ice and fire. Last month, eight miles to the east of the tunnel, an avalanche killed 12 people in the village of Le Tour. Three weeks ago, flames destroyed one of the oldest buildings in Chamonix itself. Now the valley has been stunned by its third and worst catastrophe, one which many here - including the mayor and the fire chief - say they have long feared.

Another stench wafts over the valley this weekend: the stench of blame and recriminations. There have been 15 previous fires in trucks and cars inside the Mont Blanc tunnel since it was opened in 1965. All the previous incidents were cleared up within minutes; there were no serious injuries.

What went wrong soon after 11am on Wednesday? The fire began in a Belgian truck carrying flour and margarine. The vehicle appears to have travelled for almost a kilometre in flames, without tunnel officials, supposedly monitoring closed-circuit TV cameras, raising the alarm. By the time the Belgian driver, Gilbert Degrave, was alerted by oncoming lorries, the fire was out of control.

Another truck, carrying rubber tyres, became jammed across both carriageways as it tried to perform a U-turn to escape the blaze. Trucks and cars came to a halt in both directions. Most of those trapped on the Italian side, including Mr De-grave, managed to flee to safety. In the northerly, or French, direction, a fierce wind, blowing from the Italian end, rapidly spread the fire to the jammed tyre truck. The tunnel filled with fumes and flames for hundreds of yards, asphyxiating the drivers behind. As the heat built to an estimated 1,200C, the cars and trucks exploded one by one.

"It is difficult to imagine what these people must have gone through," one fireman said. "There is a long section of tunnel, maybe half a kilometre, scattered with vehicles. Inside, all you can see is skeletons with charred limbs."

A French investigating magistrate has been appointed to lead a judicial inquiry into possible charges of "aggravated manslaughter". Since the Belgian truck driver appears to be blameless, the inquiry will centre on the tunnel management companies. There will also be a public inquiry.

The principal questions facing the inquiries are as follows. How could the Belgian truck travel so far in flames without an official alert being given? Was this vehicle - or one of the others which burst into flame - carrying a banned inflammable substance? "There is something bizarre about this incident," one tunnel official said. "We have had fires before, but never one which spread so quickly or produced such quantities of smoke, such thick, unliveable smoke."

Were vehicles still entering the tunnel after the alert was given (as several lorry drivers have claimed)? Why did the tunnel ventilation system - supposedly capable of extracting 300 cubic metres of polluted air a second - fail to remove the dense, acrid fumes from the original conflagration?

Was there insufficient, modern safety gear available to allow the tunnel's fire brigade and the Chamonix fire service to reach the original fire in time? Georges Tosello, 54, deputy head of the Chamonix fire service, was buried yesterday with military honours. He died of an alleged heart attack in the tunnel, but it emerged yesterday that he was part of a team of five firemen who had only four sets of breathing equipment among them. Mr Tosello, six months from retirement, volunteered to be the one to go without.

Why did the tunnel operators state categorically on Wednesday that there were only three or four vehicles trapped? Italian firefighters finally counted 33 burnt-out vehicles on Friday afternoon. The news fell like a bombshell. The tunnel is supposed to be equipped with a computerised counting system, tracking all vehicles coming in and going out. "Such a discrepancy, 20 vehicles not accounted for. Something is very wrong about that," one fireman said.

There were also angry exchanges yesterday on the subject of a report drawn up by local fire and rescue services last year which warned that the Mont Blanc tunnel - with no service or rescue tunnel - was a disaster waiting to happen.

Christian Comte, head of the Chamonix fire service, had been issuing similar warnings for four years. Local journalists reported that he would regularly say: "Send me where you like. Avalanches. Earthquakes. Road accidents. But, please God, not into that tunnel."